Greece is gearing up for the information society, Petros Stefaneas reports
The past three years have seen a revolution in Greek higher education. But this one - unlike the revolutions of the early 1970s when students were fighting for democracy - has been peaceful.
Greece's universities are equipping themselves with the latest high-tech network facilities, to prepare for the Information Society. The government recently launched its first call for distance-learning projects. One objective is to fund courses for undergraduates. But, in what it sees as a redefinition and widening of the universities' traditional role, the government will also fund the development of short courses for professional people outside the universities.
Vasilios Maglaris, from the National Technical University of Athens (http://www.ntua.gr) and scientific supervisor of its new voice-data communication network, explains that the need for distance learning arises largely from Greece's fragmented geography. With its hundreds of islands and many mountains, it is often difficult for students to reach universities. In addition, many students need to work for a living, often in their home towns or villages. In some university departments, the proportion of students who for some reason are unable to attend their classes is estimated at more than 20 per cent. Telematics, he says, offers a solution, in the form of a nation-wide network of fibre-optic links capable of transmitting high-bandwidth video, as well as Web pages and other less-demanding forms of information. The model for this infrastructure is the advanced internal network of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), a respected institution famous as the birthplace of the student pro-democracy revolution in 1973. The government is committed to establishing such networks in all higher education institutions, and to support high speed interconnection among them; it is now up to the universities to put lectures and other teaching materials into a form accessible over this academic inter-network.
Distance learning applications involving networks will also be used to support the educational needs of the world-wide Greek diaspora, to support mature students' access to higher education and to help provide specialised training remotely.
Three years ago, most of the Internet links at Greek universities were limited to a speed of 64 kilobits per second. Also, there was no direct connection between different Greek Internet providers. So, a university from central Athens might have had to communicate electronically with a company in north Athens via Paris or London. According to Professor Maglaris, who represents Greece in the European Telematics Applications Programme, the current speed has increased to 10 megabits per second thanks to large investments made by the Greek state and the European Union (under the TEN-34 project). Also, main Greek Internet providers have been connected via a fast and reliable local node, the Athens Internet Exchange.
How might the network be used? One of the most impressive applications of the new high-speed links is an online traffic map of Athens, developed by the department of transportation planning and engineering at NTUA. It displays all main roads within the greater Athens area, colour-coding each to show how busy it is. The map, which readers with Web access may view at http://www.transport.ntua. gr/map/, is updated every 15 minutes with data collected from traffic sensors throughout the area, and enables Athens commuters to shorten journey times. Another online map, at http://www.transport.civil.ntua. gr/map/route.html, provides estimated travel times from six major entrances to Athens. It is expected that such maps will help to improve traffic conditions and reduce pollution.
Three major Athens universities - the NTUA, the University of Athens and the Athens University of Economics and Business - plan to start the first "Virtual Greek University". As Theodoros Karounos, manager of the Network Management Centre at NTUA explains, this will centre around state-of-the-art classrooms for teleteaching, connected by a high-speed, fibre-optic metropolitan area network. Students will be able to call up videos of lectures and demonstrations. Classrooms will also be used for online teleteaching, so that lectures in one of the universities can be broadcast to remote rooms and perhaps in one of the other two. Staff and students will be able to use these rooms and links for teleconferencing.
The new networks are not only useful for communication between people. In an interesting application under development at the University of Patras, many of the network's "users" will be heat sensors, water sprinklers and other equipment.
The project aims to establish an advanced control mechanism allowing the university to manage its energy resources and water supplies, and also to provide security control and online alarms in case of fire.
To provide high-level network services for the Greek academic and research institutions, the government has set up the Greek Research and Technology Network (GRnet), funded by the Greek General Secretariat for Research and Technology and the EU. Main nodes of GRnet are located in Athens, Salonica, Heraklion, Xanthi, Ioannina and Patras, while its technical management is provided by the Network Management Centre of NTUA (http://www.ntua.gr/nmc).
Petros Stefaneas is education and communications officer at the National Technical University of Athens.